Friday, August 8, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Continuing the Discussion

A month ago, Petaluma Urban Chat began considering the future of the Sonoma Marin fairgrounds, 63 acres of real estate well situated a few blocks from downtown Petaluma, the coming SMART station, and the 101 freeway.

Of course, Urban Chat has no role in the on-going negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board over the extension of the current lease which will expire in 2023.  However, we anticipate taking part in the community discussions that will take place when the results of the negotiations are announced.  Educating ourselves about the site and considering the uses to which it might be put is good training for that participation.

Also, perhaps if we can reach particularly clever or insightful decisions about the site, we might even influence the course of the negotiations.

We had an enthusiastic turnout for the July Urban Chat meeting, with the greatest participation in several months.   There were new faces among the attendees, most participating in the discussion with vigor.  Based on the level of interest, it was decided to continue the conversation over the next several meeting, including the upcoming meeting on Tuesday, August 12.

For those who may be joining the group on this coming Tuesday or who have an interest in the site, I’ll summarize the discussions from the previous meeting.

We reviewed the boundary conditions, residential on one side, light industrial on another, retail on the third, and a major arterial partially lined with civic facilities on the fourth, and the known site constraints, such as a required hazardous material cleanup and the General Plan requirement for a large park.

With that background established, the initial question addressed was the extent to which the group felt the fairgrounds should be modified.  The options were to leave the fairgrounds as currently configured, to retain the fair at the current site but in a reduced area freeing up a portion of the site for redevelopment, or to open the entire site for redevelopment.

Not surprisingly given the self-selection of the group, no one was in favor of leaving the fair as is.  The question of whether to reduce the area of the fair or to displace it completely was more split, although the majority seemed to favor complete displacement.  It’s a question to which we’ll return.

With that issue addressed, we began tossing out and cogitating upon possible new site uses.  In no particular order, a list of these possible uses follows, with a few of my thoughts on each.

Residential: Walkable urban housing is the most obvious use for the site, with the convenient location easily served by walking, bicycling, and transit.  It’s difficult to conceive of a site plan that doesn’t include a strong element of housing.

Light agriculturally-based industrial: This is where the fair replacement idea leads.  Rather than an annual celebration of local agriculture, the site could become a setting where vintners, brewers, and cheese makers could locate in a critical mass.

Public market: This is a particular favorite of mine.  In an earlier post, I suggested a community plaza at the edge of the fairgrounds that would include retail space functioning like a public market.  In the Urban Chat conversation, The Barlow in Sebastopol and the Oxbow Public Market in Napa were mentioned as possible templates.  This use would be complementary to the agriculturally-based industrial uses.

Convention center: I know there is local sentiment for a convention center, but I also know that many communities find that convention centers require continuing subsidies.  This is an option that I’d approach with caution.

City Hall: This was an intriguing idea, particularly if it can be used to stitch together the existing library and Swim Center into a civic core.  It would also free up the current City Hall site for redevelopment that would improve westside walkability.  However, there would be significant costs and the current City Hall, although a bit insipid, hasn’t exhausted its usable lifespan.

Petaluma High School: This was an intriguing idea, with the opportunity to replace an aging campus with a modern campus.  Much like the City Hall idea, it would free up a significant parcel of land with which to change the walkability and sustainability of the westside.  However, there are major negatives, including a less convenient location for the students who come from rural locations west of town and significant costs.

Non-profit hub: This idea also has appeal, although, as Jane Jacobs would point out, low-overhead organizations usually fit best in aging buildings, not new construction.  If there are existing fair buildings that can be retrofitted for non-profit use, that would likely be the best solution.

Elder housing: I would expect that both elder housing and low-income housing would be a part of any residential plan.

New home for Cinnabar Theater: The current theater, at North Petaluma Boulevard and Skillman Lane, is a charming structure, but the site is awkwardly configured and street access is difficult.  Relocation to the fairground could grow the theater company, although it might also undermine the culture that has been created at the current site.

Ballpark: This is a concept that I’d personally enjoy.  I’m still disappointed that the suggestion of a few years back to relocate a California League ballclub to Petaluma didn’t succeed.  However, I’ll acknowledge that ballparks can be problematic to vibrant neighborhoods, with too many periods of inactivity to truly support the neighborhood.  Ballparks work best at the edge of a neighborhood, with no uses on the far side, so they don’t create pedestrian dead zones.  (AT&T Park in San Francisco is a fine example.)  I don’t see a site on the fairgrounds that meets this criterion.

My guess is that we’ll continue to chew over these ideas at the next meeting, perhaps adding new ones and discarding some of these.  At some point, either at the coming meeting or the one after, we’ll likely begin making “bubble diagrams”, placing the preferred uses in different areas of the site.  But this is a process that will likely continue for several more meetings, so our approach will be to move slowly.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please join us.  We’ll convene at 5:30pm on Tuesday, August 12th at our regular meeting place, the Aqus CafĂ© at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.  (However, if this subject continues to attract more and more people, we may need to move to a different location for a meeting or two.)  All are welcome.

In my next post, I’ll write about an intriguing land development concept coming to the North Bay.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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